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Cells – memories for my mother by Gavin McCrea

Gavin McCrea’s memoir is the second Coronavirus lockdown book I’ve read in the past couple of months. It had been suggested by a publisher that writing about a period of time so specific was inherent with risk.

Fortunately for us, neither McCrea nor Elisabeth Strout received the memo.

Strout’s book, Lucy by the Sea is fictional. McCrea’s an intensely personal memoir of time and place is set in Dublin where he has returned to lock down in a small apartment with his mother, who is gradually losing her battle with dementia. It’s a nightmare scenario to which McCrae adds his personal reflections of teenage trauma dealing with his sexuality, while also grappling with the sudden death of his father.

Additionally, these traumatic memories are made even more devastating by the tragedy of his brother’s mental illness, and the shadow it continues to cast over his family. These elements of a difficult childhood recalled during a world-wide pandemic – all the while grappling with the involuntary withdrawal of his mother as her illness progresses - are intensified by McCrae’s growing need to extract an apology or acknowledgement from her before it’s too late.

The result is a searing autobiography from this acclaimed writer (Mrs Engels and The Sisters Mao). McCrae holds a PhD in Creative and Critical writing; and as I am increasingly finding in my journeys with the best of Irish writers, he doesn’t use a single word when two or three – go on; let’s have a fourth – will do. And, let’s face it, nobody records childhood deprivation, quite like the Irish. Even as McCrae’s upbringing does not bear the painful hallmarks of abject poverty, it’s still hard to imagine how he survived the trauma ladled upon trauma that he experienced.

I felt his pain quite personally as I was also attempting to complete a memoir during the pandemic; and the memories which surfaced during the process seemed more visceral when experienced in relative isolation. That is, without the usual masking busy-ness of our normal hectic lives. And, like McCrae, I was caught by surprise by some of the emotions and questions that the cathartic process revealed. For example, the need for an explanation and acknowledgement of long ago hurts and neglects which are perhaps unrealistic and unreasonable when the circumstances of one’s childhood are taken as a whole.

Parents are rarely perfect. Should we let bygones be bygones? Do we risk appearing to remain a petulant child when we reveal our unprocessed pain; or is that simply the hallmark of a good, honestly told memoir? Regardless, and quite fearlessly, McCrae lays it all bare. I was sometimes shocked by his capacity for honesty, for both telling the unvarnished truth of his childhood and also for some of the intensely personal aspects of his adult sexuality, and his physical – almost Oedipal - attachment to his mother.

It’s brave; brilliantly written; almost unbearably raw and frank; but also tender and sweet. And the title and cover illustration made perfect sense when the author, with his usual capacity for naked truth, revisited the moment he experienced a pivotal collision with his past while visiting an art exhibition.

Reviewer: Peta Stavelli



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